Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Still warm, and still cool

Maine Today

January 23, 2007

KENNEBUNK - James McKenney was waiting for the question.

"This," he says, "is my fuel bill for the entire year."
The 87-year-old hands over a small yellow receipt for 164 gallons of kerosene that cost him $445 last summer. "That's it," McKenney says, his eyes twinkling.

Unpredictable oil prices and concern about global warming are fueling a lot more interest these days in super-efficient homes and alternative energy. But those ideas are nothing new to McKenney, whose solar-heated, energy-efficient home in Kennebunk made news 25 years ago. A newspaper headline at the time called it a "space-age saltbox."

"I think this is the first super-insulated home in Maine," he said. "I'd like people to know that if they want to save a tremendous amount of money over the years, it's super simple. There's nothing complex about it."

Indeed, McKenney's home appears to be a simple two-bedroom retirement cottage. Much of what makes the house different is hidden behind the walls, floors and ceiling.
The walls are 12 inches thick and contain 7 inches of fiberglass around a 2-inch vented air space, plus additional layers of Styrofoam and bead board. When he built the house in 1981, codes required that walls have an R-11 energy efficiency rating. "Our walls are R-45," he said.

Eighteen inches of fiberglass insulation cover the ceiling. The floor lies over an insulated 4-foot-high crawl space.

Although today's average houses are now more energy-efficient than they were then, McKenney's still easily qualifies as superinsulated.

Lots of other energy-efficient features blend right into the home's design, until McKenney points them out.

The large south-facing windows in the main living area, for example, let in enough sunlight to warm the home and heat up the slate floor and large brick hearth so they help keep the house warm at night.

The north side of the house has small windows and is partially sheltered from the cold wind by the attached garage. Even the mud room is more than it appears. "This is an old Maine trick. It's called an air-lock entry," he said. Having a door leading to the mud room and one leading outside reduces the infiltration of cold air when people go in and out.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the home is a pool with 4,000 gallons of water -- in the basement crawl space. The pool acts as a heat sink, moderating temperatures in the house and acting like a central air conditioner during the summers.

McKenney's home sits on the family's farmland where he grew up. He served in the Navy in World War II and later built and repaired medical equipment in California. But his engineering know-how is self-taught.

"The total amount of my formal education was Kennebunk High School," he said. He graduated in 1939.

McKenney designed the house as a comfortable retirement home to share with his wife, who died in 1993. For the first 15 years, he heated the house with one cord of wood each winter and used solar panels on the roof to heat hot water. Now he uses kerosene for heat and has an electric water heater.

He guesses the home has saved about 850 gallons of oil each year, or as much as $50,000 in energy costs in the past 25 years. The house, garage and shed cost about $110,000 to build, he said.

But even if the house never saved a dollar, it's been "obscenely comfortable," he said. Even with his thermostat set at 74 degrees, the heater stays off all day, he said.

The idea of superinsulated homes was still new in 1980, and McKenney ran into a little trouble when he looked for carpenters willing to help build his house. "A lot of guys said it was going to rot," he said.

Moisture in an air-tight building was a problem he had thought of, too, so the house includes vapor barriers and a ventilation system that draws in outdoor air and warms it up in the crawl space. He also put in a full-house air filtration system that, for 25 years at least, has virtually eliminated dust.

"It was a new concept," said Wayne Berry, a local builder who was the first to agree to work on the project. "You hadn't done it before, and you had to think it through."

A lot of homeowners were looking for solutions to the energy crisis around 1980, Berry said, although he and McKenney could not find any existing superinsulated homes in Maine at the time. Then energy prices dropped again and Berry went back to more traditional houses.

In the past five years, however, specialized builders have seen a big jump in demand.
"I think there is more of an awareness that people have alternatives," said Noah Wentworth, who owns Evergreen Building Collaborative in Arundel and has focused on energy-efficient homes and renovations for about 12 years. "There's a lot more people building this way," he said.

Superinsulated homes tend to cost about 10 percent more than standard homes, but the increase in mortgage payments is covered by the reduced energy costs, Wentworth said.
And although McKenney got funny looks in 1980, homeowners get plenty of advice and encouragement today.

Home buyers can now get larger mortgages if they can show their home is energy-efficient. Builders can get a new $2,000 federal tax credit for homes that are certified to use 50 percent less energy than a standard home.

The owners of existing homes also can get state grants and low-interest loans to increase energy efficiency or install equipment to produce solar power.

Those programs are too new to show any trends, and no one tracks the number of energy-efficient homes in Maine.

Wes Riley, owner of Horizon Residential Energy Services in South Portland, certifies homes as energy-efficient under a federal program called Energy Star. And he's been busy lately.

"There are over 450 houses that I've certified in the last 12 months in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts," he said. "There are a growing number of builders who really want to build high-performance homes."

Unlike in the early 1980s, experts think the trend will keep going, and growing, this time.

"The technologies are simple and they're mature," said Danuta Drozdowicz of Fore Solutions of Portland, a "green building" consultant. "I think we're going to see more of it. It's too easy to do and the benefits are there."

McKenney agrees. "Most everybody realizes that the amount of oil that's left in the planet is finite," he said.

McKenney, who also drives a hybrid gas-electric car, is still thinking of new ideas. Now that he's pushing 90 and "entering the twilight years," McKenney said he's toying with the idea of putting new solar panels on the roof that could power his house and send surplus power onto the grid.

But he's also enjoying the comfort of his "space-age" home, and the fact that, after 25 years, he's on the cutting edge again. "I feel that I was right in the first place," he said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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